Feedback
Science

McKinley to Denali: Why Restoring Names Isn’t Always Easy

Image: Mt. McKinley

Mt. McKinley in Alaska's Denali National Park,. Mt. McKinley is the highest mountain peak in North America and the United States, with a summit elevation of 20,320 feet (6,194 m) above sea level. Becky Bohrer / AP

Mount McKinley is now Denali. On Sunday, President Barack Obama announced that the tallest peak in North America would be getting its original name back.

While the struggle over Denali is over, it's not the first time people have restored the names of mountains, rivers and other geographic landmarks.

What’s in a Name? Mt. McKinley Becomes Denali 2:39

Cape Canaveral

Before Denali, Cape Canaveral was the most famous case of a location getting a new name, until a public outcry forced officials to change it back.

The cape is best known as a NASA launch site, so it made sense when President Lyndon Johnson named it "Cape Kennedy" in 1963 to honor President John F. Kennedy, who set the goal to go to the moon.

The change was not loved by locals. Florida lawmakers passed a law restoring the old name — which stems from "Cabo Canaveral," which is what 16th century Spanish explorers called it — and in 1973 it became Cape Canaveral again.

Mt. McKinley formally renamed Denali in White House announcement 0:27

Tornado

When Google Maps and GPS became the norm, the unincorporated town of Tornado, West Virginia, had a problem. Officially, it was named Upper Falls in 1910. But before that, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, it was dubbed "Tornado" on account of the violent arguments that erupted when townspeople were trying to decide what to name the town.

The name Tornado stuck with the people who lived there, but officials records continued to say Upper Falls. (That name comes from the town's proximity to the Upper Falls of the Coal River). The distinction between the didn't matter much until modern times, when people tried to enter "Tornado, West Virginia" into their GPS systems and came up empty.

In 2013, U.S. Board on Geographic Names made the switch and residents were officially living where they always thought they were: Tornado, West Virginia.

Wailuku River

References to the Wailuku River date back to maps from the 1800s, before the Kingdom of Hawaii was part of the United States.

It was renamed the Īao Stream, for the Īao Valley it originates from, after much of its water was diverted by Wailuku Sugar Company in the early 1900s. Earlier this year, locals rallied to change its name back to the Wailuku River, a move that was approved in May by the Hawaiʻi State Board on Geographic Names.

Changing names isn't easy

Every year, the federal government gets "hundreds" of requests to change the names of locations, according to Lou Yost, executive secretary for domestic names at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The process "takes awhile," Yost told NBC News. In the best-case scenario, he said, a location can get a new name in eight months. Many cases take longer as proposals are sent from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to state boards and local governments and then back to the federal office.

Around half of the proposals come from people who want to give names to unnamed sites, often things like small streams and mountains. The other half consists of proposals to call locations something new.

Restoring a place's original name is fairly rare, and can sometimes be a drawn-out and emotionally charged process.

Plenty of campaigns have failed. This year, there was an effort to change the name of Harney Peak in South Dakota's Black Hills. Its namesake is Gen. William S. Harney, who is remembered by some Native Americans for reportedly killing Lakota women and children in the Battle of Ash Hollow in 1855.

Local Native Americans pushed for its original Lakota name, Hinhan Kaga, which translates to "making of owls," but the move was rejected last month by the South Dakota Board of Geographic Names.

While the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has ultimate authority, it waits for broad local consensus before acting.

"It's not the board's mission to write history or restore old names," Yost said. "It's to standardize names based on current local use and preference."